Graduate Fellows Bio
Doug grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado, surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty — 14,000 ft. mountains, rushing whitewater streams, and vast expanses of sparsely populated land. However, it wasn’t until moving to the Front Range of Colorado to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering at Colorado State University that he began to fully appreciate the value of nature. The burdens placed on natural systems by the ever-expanding Denver metro area — rapidly increasing land and water use due to suburban sprawl, the infamous brown cloud of air pollution smothering Denver’s skyline, soil degradation and water pollution caused by industrial agriculture and factory feedlots — put into sharp relief how critical natural systems are to humanity, and yet how poorly we understand and manage them. With his emerging passion for environmental issues, Doug decided to apply his degree in mechanical engineering to help mitigate the impacts of one of the major contributors to environmental degradation: automobiles. He worked as a research engineer at Ford Motor Company for 5 years, primarily as a controls system engineer on the Hybrid Escape and diesel lean-NOx trap projects. However, a desire to work more directly on environmental issues and a passion for biology led him to leave Ford to pursue a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at U of M. When the rigors of graduate school permit, Doug enjoys mountain biking, backpacking, trail running, climbing, reading, and music.
High biodiversity agriculture for the future: using the sciences of ecology and complexity to understand natural pest control in agroecosystems.
The goal of Doug’s research is to understand how natural pest controls are maintained in an organic, shade coffee agroecosystem located in Chiapas, Mexico. Shade coffee, or coffee grown beneath a dense canopy of shade trees, has been shown to provide crucial habitat for associated biodiversity, such as migratory song birds, ants, and bats. Effective pest control is a key enabler of this type of coffee cultivation. In particular, control of the green coffee scale (a small insect that sucks sap from coffee bushes) and coffee rust (a fungal disease of coffee) is essential; these have been known to devastate the coffee growing industries of entire regions. In the system that Doug studies, the distributions of green coffee scales and coffee rust are thought to be highly influenced by the distribution of a tree-nesting ant. This ant forms a mutualistic association with the scale insects, protecting them from predation in exchange for a carbohydrate-rich honeydew that the scales excrete. However, the ants also inadvertently protect the larvae of a beetle that is a voracious predator of the scales. The large scale insect populations tended by the ants provide favorable conditions for a fungus that attacks both the scales and the coffee rust. Using a combination of field data, spatially-explicit computer modeling, and other tools of complexity science, Doug hopes to understand the factors that determine the spatial distributions of ant nests, scale insects, and fungus, and thereby explain what prevents the coffee scales and coffee rust from reaching damaging levels. His research, which also aims to discover general principles that can be applied to a variety of agroecosystems, is part of a broader effort by agroecologists to facilitate the development of high-biodiversity, knowledge-intensive agricultural practices.